Aidan Headly never wanted to be the man giving orders. That's fine with the Democratic State Force base he's been assigned to command: they don't like to take orders. Nicknamed the Wildcards, they used to be the most effective base against the seven Corporations owning the former United States in a war that has lasted over half a century. Now the Wildcards are known for creative insubordination, chaos, and commanders begging to be reassigned.
Aidan is their last chance. If he can pull off his assignment as Commander and yank his ragtag crew of dreamers and fighters together, maybe they can get back to doing what they came to do: fighting for a country worth living in.
"Romance adds heart to this dark, character-driven SF debut, set in a dystopic 2155 where the United States of America has been replaced by the all-controlling seven United Corporations. Outside the Corporation grid that spans Colorado and Wyoming lies Base 1407, home to the Wildcards, a group of resistance fighters struggling to regroup after the death of their commander, Paul Taylor. Two awful commanders have tried and failed to get the Wildcards to
shape up. When Aidan Headley reluctantly accepts the command post, the Wildcards' Logistics Officer, Kevin McIllian, expects another brutal tyrant; instead he gets gentle, compassionate Aidan. As Aidan and Kevin bond during movie nights, their developing relationship heals deeper personal wounds in both men, freeing Aidan to reveal that he's transgender. Themes of bigotry and past trauma make the Wildcards' journey occasionally painful to read, but the found family forged by these lovable characters is worth sticking with. This is a lovely paean to the healing power of respectful personal connections among comrades, friends, and lovers."– Publisher's Weekly
"I'd recommend this to those who love futuristic dystopian stories where the oppressed fight back the best way they can, where love is discovered, where a family is rebuilt, and where something precious can be built in a desolate Country."– MM Good Book Reviews
Event File 01
File Tag: Orientation
The ancient Humvee rattled as it hit another pothole. On the other side of the vehicle's window clouds of grit obscured the view, kicked up as they rumbled through the dry soil of the Dust. Tumbleweeds and rabbit- brush crunched like bird bones beneath the tires.
Aidan flipped through his new personnel roster on the holographic screen projected from the tablet in his lap. The nails of his free hand scratched out erratic rhythms against the fabric of his pants.
His eyes skittered over the flickering images for the third time, trying to memorize names and faces. He'd only needed one read- through of the attached disciplinary files. Those he wasn't going to forget in a hurry.
Sarah Flesher. Skinny white woman with black hair and a smirk. Munitions specialist. Jim Crawford. Skinny black guy with a tired face. Hell, everybody was skinny and tired out here. Operations specialist. Yvonne Flesher. Muscly blonde woman. Runner, maybe? Requisitions specialist. Blake Frachette. The only pudgy guy Aidan had seen in a year. Finance officer. Figured, he would be the only one sitting still. Kevin McIllian. Red-headed guy, smiling just a bit. Cute. Logistics officer.
Shit, he was never going to learn all this before he arrived.
The big man across from Aidan laughed, pulling Aidan's attention away from his compulsive study. It was an honest sound, rare out here in the Dust. Hell, real laughter was probably rare all across America nowadays, on-Grid and off.
"It's good you're nervous, Headly," Front Range Sector Commander Magnum observed. "Nerves mean you'll care about these people. That's what they need."
"I'm not nervous, sir." It was a lie and they both knew it. Aidan switched his tablet to sleep mode, and its shivering screen slid back into the flat black pane. The truck's movement and the tightness in his gut was making reading impossible anyway. He might as well humor the sector commander. "I just want to make sure I know what you're dropping me into. The Wildcards have an insane reputation."
Sector Commander Magnum laughed again. The dry leather creaked under his bulk. "Which is why we want to see how you do with them. They've been through two seasoned commanders in two months since Commander Taylor died. Figured it was time to see how they manage with one fresh out of training. We're hoping they don't chew you up and spit you out, too."
Aidan swallowed hard. That comment wasn't exactly helping his roiling stomach. He had only finished Command training a week ago. This morning he'd been told that he'd been assigned. Only when he'd climbed into the transport for the three-hour drive had he been told which base he'd been assigned to.
"Relax, Headly. I'm not asking you to turn these guys into a normally functioning base," Magnum added with quiet exasperation. "Fact is, I don't want them functioning like all our other bases. I want them functioning like the Wildcards on top of their game. Standard operation procedure isn't the objective here. Do what you need to do. Run them the way you want. The objective's to get them back on mission."
"Yes, sir," Aidan agreed. He tried to breathe normally, but it wasn't easy.
The loosely-organized insurgent bases collectively glorified by the name of Democratic State Force couldn't have offered a new commander anything more terrifying. He wasn't ready to take on the most famous—well, infamous—base and their mess. How had he been crazy enough to accept this assignment? He should have opened the door and run for the hills, gone Fringe, anything but say yes.
At least the base was a long way from the one he'd grown up on. He repeated the thought, trying to calm himself. A long way from anyone he'd known before. The odds of anyone recognizing him from his pre-transition life were slim.
The vehicle pulled to a stop and the driver cut the engine.
Aidan leaned forward to look out of the tinted windshield. The low, tan shape of the base complex sat baking in the sun beyond the window. Covered by its heat-shielding, sensor-disrupting slick tarp, it could be mistaken for angular rock formations at a distance.
As he watched, a corner of the tarp peeled away to reveal a rusting garage door. A woman stepped out. He squinted at her, trying to place her face with one of the names from the base manifest, but she was too far away to make out her features.
"Liza Carlan, if I had to guess," the sector commander said, jerking his cleft chin toward the woman. "Your personnel officer and second-in-command."
Aidan nodded thoughtfully. Liza Carlan's record was peppered with disciplinary write-ups, though most of this base's personnel had checkered pasts. It was part of the reputation the Wildcards had created for themselves. Part of the reason Aidan really didn't want to get out of the Humvee.
The sector commander elbowed his newest command officer. "Go on, Headly. You have your orders. You have your base. Go meet 'em."
"Yes, sir." Aidan was relatively convinced he was going to vomit the instant his feet touched the dusty ground. But he popped open the door, grabbed his duffle from the floorboard, and climbed out into the hot, dry air.
Behind him, the window rolled down.
"And, Headly?" the big man called from the cool interior. Aidan glanced back into Magnum's dark eyes. "Sir?"
"Remember what I said. We need this base back on mission. Make it happen."
Aidan's stomach clenched. He threw a clumsy salute. "Sir. Orders received."
The sector commander smiled grimly, his driver rolled up the window, and the vehicle's tires kicked up grit in its wake.
Aidan swallowed hard and turned to the base. As he approached the lone woman outside the slick tarp, she gave him a crisp salute. She was as tall as he was—not much of an achievement—and it looked like her dun-colored uniform was two sizes too big for her, held on with a tight belt cinched around her waist. All muscle and no fat, Aidan thought. A classic Duster. In classrooms and press reports, they might be the Democratic State Force, but on the ground, everybody knew they were Dusters.
He hoisted his duffle higher on his shoulder and nodded politely.
"Welcome to Base 1407."
She held her salute. Her slightly oversized brown eyes studied him, cold and curious.
Aidan sighed. He hated standing on formality. It had gotten him several lectures during his training. Technically, he knew all the arguments for the command structure. He'd gotten them shouted down his ear often enough. The only thing that had gotten him more tellings off was saying 'um' when speaking. But it still seemed like the strict military setup so many commanders used was against the essence of the Dusters' mission. They were fighting to break the rigid social structures the United Corporations of America had put in and return the country to freedom and equality, weren't they? So why did they try to force their own people to act like toy soldiers?
But Personnel Officer Liza Carlan seemed insistent on holding that salute until he returned it, so he lifted his free hand to his brow for a moment and dropped it again.
Liza held hers a breath longer before letting her hand fall. She nodded and turned toward the slick tarp. "If you'll follow me, sir, we'll get you situated in your quarters."
Aidan cleared his throat.
"If it's all the same, I'd rather meet the rest of the unit first."
Liza's step faltered. She wobbled a moment before regaining her balance and glancing over her shoulder, brows pinched above her hawk- like nose. "Sir?"
"I'd like to give you all my condolences on Commander Taylor." Aidan nodded toward the black armband over Liza's uniform sleeve. When she stiffened, he realized he might have completely misread things and back-pedaled. "Unless you're mourning someone else. Um. I'm sorry. I assumed you hadn't lost anyone else lately, based on the reports, but I realize they might be—"
"Why do you care?" Liza's voice was quiet as she began walking again.
Aidan scrambled to keep up. They ducked under the corner of the slick tarp and into the motor pool garage. The smell of oil and engine coolant nearly made Aidan gag. He forced back the impulse and tried to answer Liza's question while he took quick stock of three tired vehicles and a motley herd of all-terrain bikes lined up side-by-side, tools and spare parts used to maintain them covering every inch of wall space. "I'm not here to shove you around, Liza. I'm here to help try and get this base back on track. Far as I'm concerned, that starts with respecting my team and their past."
They were out of the garage and halfway down a narrow corridor walled in pockmarked pre-fab plastic before Liza spoke again.
"Let's get you settled first, sir. Then you can listen to our sob stories if you have to."
Aidan considered calling her on that and decided against it. No sense being the bad guy in his first five minutes. He could put his foot down when the issue mattered. Besides, he could use a second to breathe.
This base was a lot smaller than the sector hub he had trained on. After all, down here large bases with large footprints wouldn't last a day. Only the sector hub and the R&R bases hidden up in the mountains had the luxury of getting bigger without being picked up by search-and- destroy drones. Aidan wished he could go up to a Rest and Retirement base right now. The days he'd spent up there recovering from injuries were the only times he could remember being relaxed.
The halls were laid out roughly the same way as the base he'd trained on: common area with the canteen and the rec room in the center, barracks down the left-hand hall, work rooms and offices down the right, garage up front. The pre-fab buildings were easy to assemble and organize any way you wanted, but most Duster units used the same general base plan. It made it easy for transfers to find their way around. Poles jutting from the roof at crazy angles secured the slick tarp overhead, holding the nanomesh fiber so that it broke up the outline of the base as it masked the building's EM signatures and showed a rock outcropping or more desert to visual scans. As a bonus, the paper-thin protective tarp kept the base cool and somewhat shaded.
It felt odd to be led to the commander's quarters at the back of the dormitory wing instead of to a smaller personal barracks room. "Commander" had been written on the door in black marker, and someone had tried to rub away the name "Taylor" underneath. It hadn't really worked.
Liza shoved the door open and stepped back. "Sir."
Reluctantly, Aidan moved into the room. It was still small— barely big enough for the thin mattress in one corner and a tiny chest for his clothes—and one pre-fab wall didn't quite meet the ceiling. For the first time in a while, Aidan was glad he wasn't in a relationship. He didn't want to worry about making noise and waking up his neighbors in the middle of the night. But it had been years since he'd had a boyfriend. No worries there. He didn't let anyone get close enough for even a casual fling these days.
He dropped his duffel on top of the small dresser and turned back, but Liza was already gone. Without asking if she was dismissed. Passive-aggressive insubordination already. Great.
With a sigh, he unzipped his bag and moved his small collection of clothing into the top drawer of the chest. Might as well unpack while he waited for Liza to decide he could meet the rest of the unit. Not that there was much to unpack: his clothes, data tab, a small collection of metalworking and engraving tools, several vials of testosterone with a micro-injector and a printout of a sketch a friend had made of his sister ages ago. He settled the tools and med gear in the drawer beside his clothing, set the data tab on top of the dresser, and tacked the sketch to the wall opposite the thin mattress. It wasn't much, but it helped make the room feel slightly more like home.
He glanced at the room's cracked mirror, nervously adjusting his jacket. He'd gotten lucky, actually finding the coloring agents for the official uniform colors: khaki coolant-lined jacket, grey shirt for his new rank underneath, khaki pants, American star pin on his lapel.
Considering most people scrounged any camouflage-worthy pigment their base's 3D printer would use on cloth, it wasn't really a uniform anymore. Their Force was barely surviving against the Corps. Details like strict uniform regulations had gotten dropped a long time ago. But making the effort felt right.
Glancing in the mirror, he ran his fingers through his dark blond hair. As far as a first test of his leadership went, this was about as difficult as they could get. And he had to get it right. The Force needed the Wildcards up and running again. Magnum had been clear on that.
By the time Liza returned, Aidan had taken to pacing the room in tiny steps, measuring it from wall to wall. He looked up at the sound of footsteps in the hallway and greeted her at the door.
"Base's ready, sir," she said shortly. She looked at a place over his shoulder instead of meeting his gaze, her hands clasped behind her back. She was every bit the military woman, from the tilt of her chin to her severe bun. That stance made Aidan tense, but he swallowed it as best he could. This was his base now. He could deal with the attitude once they all got more comfortable with each other.
"Well, let's get going."
She nodded curtly and turned on her heel. Aidan sucked in a breath and followed.
Eighteen people were gathered in the small base canteen, making it feel crowded. It should have been noisy with this many people in one place—including four children ranging from a baby to a pair of pre- teens—but none of them made a sound. Every single one of the adults had their eyes fixed on him. Every single one of them wore a black armband over their uniform sleeve.
"Wildcards, attention!" Liza barked, her voice startling in the tense silence.
Twelve adults snapped to attention, their faces in various emotional states from curious to irritated. Even the kids gave straightening up and staring forward a try.
With the eyes of the unit on him, Aidan wished fervently that he looked more like a commander and less like an awkward teenager playing soldier. He wished he could grow a decent beard and mustache to hide the softness of his chin. Even after six years on a regular testosterone dose, he still thought his face looked too feminine. He'd never managed to grow decent facial hair either, another genetic failure.
He wished he looked tougher and less scruffy, wished that he'd had the time and energy to bulk up a little more before taking this assignment. Looking underfed didn't help.
Mostly, he wished he wasn't standing here with all these eyes on him.
He forced himself to step forward and sweep his gaze down the line, smiling at the toddler in a woman's arms. His eyes slid from face to face, caught for a moment on something odd: the red-headed man from the files standing near the center of the line, grey eyes watchful behind a pair of old wire-rimmed glasses. Where the hell had he found those ancient things, and why bother to wear them? Corrective eye surgery only took about five minutes, even out in the Dust.
Aidan drew a breath, realizing he was distracting himself. He needed to focus. He couldn't afford to look like his new base wasn't his top priority. "At ease, all of you."
The crew shuffled into more comfortable positions.
Liza walked Aidan down the line, introducing the base personnel in a clipped, professional tone. Most of them looked like their ID photos in the Duster network, which helped Aidan put names—and discipline write-ups—to faces.
The woman with the baby, Andrea the cook, gave him a weak smile. Her ten-year-old son, Tommy, stood pressed against her leg, watching him with something like reproach. Jim Crawford stood close to the woman holding his daughter, giving Aidan a professional smile as he passed.
Damian Coson, the tall Black medical officer, looked at him with whirring cybernetic eyes that reflected Aidan's stare from glossy black surfaces. His twelve-year-old brother and sister, twins, watched Aidan with the terrifyingly solemn eyes of children. Somebody had named the poor things Dilly and Donny. Aidan looked away. Kids' lives were his responsibility on this base, too. As if he wasn't scared enough.
The senior transport specialist, a guy named Dozer Short, did not live down to his name. He looked like a walking armored crew car. But at least he was smiling. He'd been the one to get written up for taking the bolts out of a truck seat, so Commander Adams went over backwards the day he left. Great sense of humor around here.
The redhead was introduced as Kevin McIllian, the logistics officer. He'd been written up three times this month for insubordination, once for punching a superior officer. He was even more attractive close up. Of course, Aidan couldn't let himself think like that. The guy was in mourning, probably not attracted to men, and there was Aidan's mess of a body and this new rank to consider.
Don't go there, he told himself.
The hydroelectrics specialist, a wiry Latina woman named Janice Danvers, shouldered a wrench longer than his arm and watched him with a deadpan expression. There had been something about physical assault in her discipline details. Hadn't she threatened to hit somebody with a wrench?
He quickly broke eye contact with her and continued down the line, until he had met the entire group of Duster delinquents now under his command. He stepped back to take them all in, hands folded behind his back. He smiled as best he could and took a moment to organize his thoughts. Don't pause and don't say 'um'. Just talk.
"Okay. As I'm sure you've all heard by now, I'm Commander Aidan Headly. First things first, I want to give you all my condolences. Commander Taylor's death was a blow to all of us, and I can't imagine what you're going through in losing him. I've had a briefing on how he ran this base, but I'm sure that doesn't cover half of what he actually did for you while he was here. If I can do anything to help you get through this, let me know."
His new crew glanced at each other, surprise running between them like electricity.
Aidan cleared his throat, slightly unnerved by the fact that none of them said anything. "Not to be a burden right out of the gate, but any chance I could get a cup of the shit we pass off as coffee?" The joke he'd been trying for didn't get a single smile.
Yvonne Flesher gave a small cough. Aidan glanced at the athletic blonde woman, remembering her title as the physical requisitions specialist, and some of the stunts she'd been written up for. Sending an inflatable sheep sex toy to another base was the one that stuck in his mind. He hoped desperately that his expression didn't change as she spoke.
"We drank the last of it at the funeral and the wake for Commander Taylor. Sir."
Her superior, McIllian, cleared his throat. "Sorry, sir. I'll have more by the end of the week. I haven't done a luxury run since…"
Aidan realized with a shock that the guy was blushing.
The logistics officer hesitated, then began again, his voice sounding more like a high-level newscaster for a Corporation than anyone Aidan had met in real life. "We're a bit at loose ends after the loss."
Aidan swallowed the desire to wince, trying to keep his face as neutral as possible. He shouldn't have asked. He should have known better. Definitely not the first impression he wanted to make. "Right. Sorry. Don't worry about it."
Someone coughed quietly. Feet shuffled.
Tension ran like a wire along Aidan's spine. He should say something else. Clear the air. Try to give them a better impression. He rubbed at the back of his neck, trying to put words into coherent sentences.
"Look. I-I'm not here to try to be Commander Taylor. And I'm not here to try to break your backs like the other two commanders that Sector Personnel sent down for you. My goal here is… well, to make this base the best it can be and maybe give the Corps a bit of hell in the meantime. So, give me a few weeks to learn the ropes and how you've done things around here, and we'll figure out how to get through this. Okay?"
Around the room, eyes blinked. Aidan thought he saw surprise, maybe even a little bit of hope. A precious few faces even smiled at him.
Then the hydroelectrics officer folded her arms. "How 'bout you get through the month here 'fore we start talkin' 'bout doin' anything together?"
No one else said a word.